IF I could have my time over again, I would have been an archaeologist. Through the years, this interest has been fuelled by programmes such as Time Team, Coast and Meet the Ancestors. I was always impressed with people like the TV presenter, Dr Alice Roberts, who can take a really complicated subject and put it into words I could understand.
This week, I was very surprised to hear that she had been appointed the new president of Humanists UK. Yet the focus of the reporting seemed to be about her sending her two children to a Church of England school. How outrageous, a humanist sending children to a school where they talk about God, was the tone of the reporting.
There is something quite ironic that the newly-appointed president of Humanists UK sends her children to a faith school. However incongruous that may be, it is not something I wouldn’t criticise Dr Roberts for.
Dig a little bit deeper into the story and you will find that seven out of the nine schools local to her were Church of England schools. She applied to the two secular schools and did not get in, joining the 18,000 families who were assigned faith schools against their wishes in 2017.
In some areas, parents like Dr Roberts do not have a choice. It’s a faith school or nothing.
As she takes up her new appointment, Alice Roberts will be the public face of a campaign to end faith schools by Humanists UK. The campaign wants the Government to stop public funding of faith schools.
Strangely, this is something that even I, as a priest, fully agree with. I have never been able to understand why taxpayers’ money should go towards funding schools with an ethos based on a particular faith. Surely, if a religion wants to subliminally proselytise children, it should pay for it itself. Better still, it should not be allowed to do it at all.
We can be thankful to the Church for all they have done in the past in bringing education to the masses. Times change, and the glory days of the Church benignly helping society educate its children is over. Britain is no longer a Christian country and there are other faiths wanting to open schools.
In an age of the divided society, I think it is now right for all religions to get their hands off education. There is a growing need to limit the influence of religious groups in places where our children are being educated.
All educational establishments should be run on strict secular lines. All religions should be taught equally as a subject rather than a doctrine to lead life by.
Our society is finally – and thankfully – embracing different and diverse lifestyles. Any philosophy that subverts this should not be paid for with public money. Schools are places for enquiring minds, not for pushing a particular religious world viewpoint.
Secularisation of education is the only way of making sure liberal and tolerant values and British culture are adhered to. It would also be unfair to treat each type of religious school differently. Abolition of faith schools is the only way to ensure an equality in education. It is divisive to separate children along such fundamental lines – this leads to religious, ethnic and socio-economic segregation. Faith schools are seen by some as educational apartheid.
Despite a dramatic decline in church attendance, and a growing majority of non-religious people, successive governments have allowed ever greater religious involvement in education, often to the disadvantage of secular schools.
Over the last few years, I have seen a growing polarisation in education. More and more faith schools are coming into being. Overall faith schools account for 37 per cent of all primaries. Information from the House of Commons library clearly shows that the proportion of state faith schools increased in England between 2000 and 2017 from 35 to 37 per cent at primary level, and 16 to 19 per cent at secondary level.
Religious primary schools achieve better exam results than even private schools, according to new research. The Parent Power Tables released this week shows that almost half of the top 500 schools are faith-based.
Even though this report shows that faith schools achieve good results, it has to be kept in mind that this is because these schools can be very selective and tend to cream off the more advantaged pupils from better backgrounds. They often have smaller class sizes and attract teachers who share the same faith. Pupils are often known to travel great distances for this type of education. This has a detrimental effect on local state schools, stripped of the talented pupils that would help them succeed.
However, schools are more than just exam results. They are about preparing people for the society in which they live. Faith schools by their very nature are partisan to their beliefs. Education has to be impartial. It also has to be secular.
GP Taylor is a writer and broadcaster from North Yorkshire.